Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Dignity

Let me tell you what I was thinking about while I was working on the interminable background of a painting I just finished.

I was thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3, episode 9, "The Wish." This is how Buffy and her friends Xander and Willow ordinarily look:

This is how they wind up looking in "The Wish":

What happens is, arch-annoyance Cordelia wishes Buffy had never come to Sunnydale and screwed up her life. She happens to make this wish in earshot of a demon, Anyanka, who grants it. The alternate Sunnydale, not unlike the alternate Bedford Falls, is a vampire-ridden craphole. Xander and Willow are obnoxious vampires, Angel is a captive of a master vampire Buffy severely staked in the real world in season 1, and Buffy's paternal watcher Giles leads a small and outgunned group of vampire-hunters.

Over the course of the episode, Cordelia, Xander, Willow, Angel, and Buffy are all slaughtered. Giles, himself on the verge of being killed by Anyanka, figures out how to undo the curse and deprive her of her powers. Anyanka, realizing she faces demotion to merely human, tries to reason him out of smashing her magical amulet:

Trusting fool! How do you know the
other world is any better than this?

(almost to himself)
Because it has to be.

The text cannot convey the pathos of Anthony Stewart Head's delivery of this line. Giles has lost everything, even his memory of life in the world as it was before Anyanka. His despair is total; he has reached the point of certainty that the world could not be worse than it is. And yet, he has faith - he makes the leap of faith that an action of unknown consequence could only work to the good. His faith is profound because it is impossible without his despair.

Thinking over this riveting scene, while painting an almost mind-boggling number of little vertical strokes of paint in nearly identical colors, I concluded that one thing we can learn from this scene is the real nature of dignity. Giles is dignified in this scene. He is never more dignified in all the time that we spend with him over the course of Buffy.

In what does his dignity consist? He has been completely humiliated. His struggle against evil has failed, his allies are dead or soon will be, vicious plans are triumphing in the world. And he himself is vested in his struggle, there is no difference between himself and his work. So he is defeated in a philosophical way, and he is defeated personally. In a minute or two, he also must be murdered. And even so - even so, at this farthest verge of failure, he cannot help but be who he is. He cannot help his faith that little choices can make the world better, and he cannot help committing his final act to this effort. It is possible to defeat him in the temporal world, but tested to the point of annihilation, it proves impossible to budge him from his virtue. This, I argue, is dignity.

I read an essay somewhere not long ago, arguing that the greatest tragedies - Oedipus, Lear - not only do involve kings, but must involve kings. Why? Because a tragedy is a story of a fall. And the greatest fall is possible only from the mightiest height. Only a king has the power to make his scope of decision tragically significant. A shopkeeper may have a tragic flaw, but he cannot provide a monumental tragedy, because the distance from his life, to the bottom of life, is too short. A tragedy demands a king.

I wish I could remember what the essay was. It's a very interesting idea, with much to recommend it, I think.

Paralleling this, I think that true dignity is possible only in the context of total humiliation. Dignity is generally taken to mean having done up one's buttons properly, and showing good posture. This is not dignity, it is the trappings of acting dignified. What is dignity? The dictionary gives us "the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect, from Latin, dignus 'worthy'". What is worthy of honor or respect? Virtue. And when do we best know that virtue is true? When it is defeated, but not abandoned.

Dignity is a virtue of the desperate hour of the soul. Instances of dignity provide some of the most moving moments in literature and drama. Two examples come to mind: the conduct of Rieux throughout Camus's The Plague, which is my personal atlas of virtue. This is a complicated example and you would be best served to simply read the damn thing. It's short, but amazing.

The other example is a particular transformative scene in Roland Joffe's 1986 movie The Mission. Set in South America in the 1750's, the movie follows Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro. Mendoza is a self-indulgent mercenary and slaver. Horrified at his murder of his brother in a fit of passion, he comes to the Jesuits to do penance. He is assigned to haul an enormous load of supplies up a mountain to the camp of the Jesuits, who are living with an indigenous tribe. The difficulty of the effort is vividly physical in the film. When Mendoza reaches the top of the mountain, a member of the tribe cuts the ropes that bind Mendoza to his load:

The tribesman flings the load down into the abyss. Mendoza sinks to the ground and weeps. By the time he is done weeping, he is laughing.

This is the pivot of his transformation. He has been crushed under the burden of his evil, and when he reached the very bottom of it, he was saved from it. When everything else was lost, he discovered what remained: his humanity, his virtue, his redeemability. Thereafter, he cannot be swayed from his friendship with the tribe, who had been his prey as a slaver, and ultimately goes to war alongside them. Before this scene of weeping, this nadir, Mendoza was without dignity. He gains dignity when he loses the last of his hope. This transformation changes his life.

All this, I thought about while I was working on this painting:

Eliq, oil on canvas, 60"x36", 2011

This is a painting of my friend Angelique, an artist and model who lives in Nashville. She is the subject of much of her fabulous work:

Awakening Joy, Angelique Moselle Price, mixed media on birch wood, 44"x30"

Unusually, for me, I worked from a photograph - I don't live in Nashville. Angelique, who also calls herself Eliq, wanted me to paint a nude of her. I thought it over for a while, until I came up with a good idea:

Eve, Gustav Klimt, 1917-18

Sure, it's not my idea - but who can argue with Gustav Klimt? It takes a stouter heart than mine, anyway.

I sent the image to her, and she worked on it with her husband Chris, a photographer who is endlessly inspired by Angelique. They came up with a revised version, and sent it to me - and I got to thinking about what I could do with it that would be really interesting. Still reflecting on Klimt, I decided to apply the brushwork in his Judith I - or my interpretation of his brushwork anyway:

Judith I, Gustav Klimt, 1901

Now, all this stuff about dignity is only tangentially related to this painting. But it is not unrelated. I'm not sure if you noticed, but I paint a lot of nudes. We have a big hoo-ha in our culture about nudity, which is very long and very tedious to get into. The upshot is, there are questions of vulnerability, and exploitation, and who-has-the-power, that come up when you spit out your cheroot and say, "I'm gonna paint me a nude."

Ordinarily, I could give a damn about all that. Most of my nudes exist in a kind of null space, an absolute space where they're nude because they're not in the world: they're in a zone of true things where there's no such thing as clothing. That is, they are still inside the hard light and cold wind of Eden.

Not so Klimt. Klimt is not painting nudes; Klimt is painting naked women. If they're not reading as naked women to you, then by gum, Klimt is going to twist a chunk out of his beard at his failure to get it right:


I chose Klimt as inspiration for this painting because of the formal elements. But as I worked on the painting, I began to get the feeling that I had once again inadvertently stumbled on something thematically significant with a choice I thought was purely aesthetic.

Let me explain. Posing nude is a very broad activity. It does not have one meaning. There is a certain continuum among models. On one end are those for whom modeling is an outward activity, separate from themselves. These models are, strictly speaking, nude. Nudity is not transactional. It is a question of state, not of a relation between an observed and an observer.

At the other end of this continuum are models for whom modeling is an outward activity that is a reflection of an inward condition. These models are naked. Nakedness does not exist without being seen. It is a form of communication.

Only nudity can be imposed by external factors. Nakedness - the revelation of self - is something that models choose whether to bring to the table.

If you stare at any one thing long enough, your extended perception gives you an awareness of the subtleties of the thing. I stared a very long time at the photograph Chris took of Angelique. Angelique is not nude in this photograph, she is naked. There is something going on with her, and between the two of them, that moves her to be naked. She and Chris invited me to participate, in this painting, in a conversation that has been going on between the two of them for years.

Naked is vulnerable. And vulnerability is the prerequisite for humiliation. The invincible cannot be humiliated. The process of humiliation that reduces Giles, reduces Rieux, reduces Mendoza, is not true humiliation. It is a scouring that leaves behind the elements that are invincible, invulnerable, that cannot be humiliated. It is the presence of these elements that gives them dignity.

So too, when Angelique poses, she undergoes a process of scouring. She presents her vulnerability. My job is not to leave it there - not to leave her humiliated. Humiliation is not enough. It is the door, not the room. Therefore, the first part of my work on this painting is to muster the resolve to pass through the door of humiliation: I have spotlit her and labeled the painting with her self-chosen name, I have made her an advertisement for herself.

But I am also required to have the insight to enter into the room of dignity. To have dignity, and to encounter dignity, are two different things. That dictionary definition of dignity offers us "the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect." The honor and respect are the things conferred by those encountering dignity. How do we honor and respect things? Well, in many ways, I guess. But the one I think about is that we name them. We say, "I name you - inward gaze. I name you - expanded ribcage. I name you - mighty abdomen. I name you - relaxed hand." We name every thing that can be named, and when we have got to the very edge of the namable, we say, "I see you, Mystery."

I will have more to say about what I mean by Mystery very soon.

In the meantime, let me conclude this way - my goal is always to show the complete human. This includes the weakness and the strength. I believe that almost all of us have dignity, in the end.


  1. Wow. Well I enjoyed this even more than I enjoy the painting, which is quite a bit. Thank you once again for showing us the room beyond the door of your process. And for the introduction to the lovely and utterly fascinating Angelique.

  2. Framdammit, Ed, the painting is always supposed to be more interesting. Or it would be if I weren't pretty serious about this "writing words" business as well - I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and that you also find Angelique extremely cool.

  3. Wow, Daniel. That made me cry. How beautiful and deep. And as a model, you are right. I feel very vulnerable and naked rather than nude. Possibly, that is just my nature. Chris says I jump into everything feet first, with very little caution. But I feel that exposing the truth is the most powerful and the most important regardless of humiliation or judgment. The painting is breathtaking, your words are captivating and its really quite a gift to all of us that you share it with us. xoxoxo Always your friend, Angelique.

  4. Wow - thank you Angelique! I am so happy that this description resonated with you. I wrote it and I was thinking, "I hope I'm not just making stuff up after being on my own painting this painting too long." But the attitude you describe completely comes through in your modeling - it makes your artists lucky to work with you, particularly you, since you're your own subject so often. I am always happiest with a painting when the person in it likes it too, so thank you for letting me know that it speaks to you. I am very grateful to you and Chris. :)

    Always your friend as well, Daniel

  5. While I personally reject your argument as to the definition of dignity, Daniel, I most definitely enjoyed the essay!

    My understanding of dignity is a sense of self worth that essentially makes one immune to humiliation.

    For example lets just say, hypothetically of course, that the Queen of England and the Prime Minister were riding together in a carriage. A discontented citizen throws an egg hitting one of the two, it doesn't matter which. Now before this they were talking quietly to one another. Now, with one of them having raw egg running down her face, neither of them makes any startled move, neither comments on the egg, nor makes any effort to brush it away. They just continue their conversation without missing a beat.

    For me, that's dignity! -However I'll try to remember you mean something a little different if we ever discuss the subject.

    & oh yea, the painting's rather cool, as is ELIQ!!

  6. No no no, you're wrong, nyah nyah nyah nyah poo poo.

    Ahem. Thank you. I'm glad I could clear that up for you.

    I guess we just have to disagree about that (on account of your manifest wrongness, which strikes me as having a grain of truth, despite being totally wrong).

    I'm glad we can agree on Eliq and ELIQ though! And thanks for the thoughtful comment.